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Farnham & Nelson Co.
Farnham & Nelson Co., 1908-1923; Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; 1923-1932; Roslindale, Massachusetts 
Associated Builders
Farnham-Nelson Coaches; Farnham-Nelson Coach Co., 1924-1932; Roslindale, Massachusetts

Known as ‘Producers of the Unusual’ Farnham & Nelson hold the distinction of being one of the nation’s first exclusive builders of bespoke automobile bodies. Founded in December of 1908, by two experienced automotive men, John T. Farnham and F.D. Nelson, the partners selected the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain for their factory.

Jamaica Plain is a historic neighborhood of 4.4 sq. miles in Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Founded by Boston Puritans seeking farm land to the south, it was originally part of the city of Roxbury. Jamaica Plain seceded from Roxbury as a part of the new town of West Roxbury in 1851, and became part of Boston when West Roxbury was annexed to the City of Boston in 1874.

Farnham & Nelson occupied a large brick building located at 47 Union Ave. which was originally part of the massive B.F. Sturtevant Blower Works - a six acre site made up of one and two story brick buildings which ran alongside the main line of the Providence Railroad. Founded in 1860, B.F. Sturtevant Co. was America's first and most innovative blower fan manufacturer, surviving through 1985 as a division of Westinghouse.

The Blower Works was partially consumed by a massive fire in 1901 which prompted a move to the adjacent Boston suburb of Hyde Park in 1903. A portion of the old B.F. Sturtevant works located between Green and Williams Sts. was leased out to the American-Napier Company in late 1904.

The August 24, 1904 issue of Horseless Age announced:

“The American Napier Co. will establish general offices and show rooms about September 1 at 743 Boyleston Street, Boston. It is the intention of this company to import the Napier engines and transmissions, and erect the cars in Boston for the American market.”

Small numbers of American Napier’s were assembled into late 1907 using coachwork which was largely furnished by regional coachbuilders. The Panic of 1907 effectively halted sales of the expensive British luxury car and the firm was unable to recover, filing for bankruptcy in early 1908.

By late 1908 the economy had recovered and two enterprising young businessmen, J.T. Farnham and F.D. Nelson, leased a portion of the old Sturtevant Blower Works adjacent to the former Napier assembly plant from its owner Eugene Foss, establishing Farnham & Nelson. John T. Farnham was involved in the sales of luxury automobiles in Boston while F.D. Nelson had been superintendent of body building at a Cleveland, Ohio manufacturer. Financing was arranged through local Jamaica Plain investors with Farnham serving as President / Treasurer and Nelson Vice-President / Secretary.

Good news for the fledgling firm materialized in March of 1909 when Napier re-opened its Jamaica Plain assembly plant and resumed production of the American Napier. Not only did Farnham & Nelson supply coachwork to Napier and other regional manufacturers, they also developed relationships with a number of Boston’s high-end automobile dealers, in particular the city’s Crane-Simplex, Locomobile, Packard and Pierce-Arrow distributors.

In 1910, Farnham & Nelson’s landlord, Eugene N. Foss - the president of the B.F. Sturtevant Company, was elected Governor of Massachusetts, providing them with even more good connections amongst the Commonwealth’s Elite.

Although the reorganized Napier announced plans for a new medium-priced roadster, light delivery wagon and taxicab, it soon ran into financial trouble and was eventually taken over by it British parent in 1911, closing its doors for good in early 1912.

In contrast to their neighbor’s financial woes, Farnham & Nelson’s business increased during their first few years in business. According to the January 27, 1912 Jamaica Plain News:

”The secret of success of the firm is due, in addition to the skill and business ability of the two proprietors, to the fact that they supply a special product for a special class of people. They are designers and makers of special automobile bodies, tops, windshields and other equipment for people who cannot purchase ready-made cars that are entirely to their liking, so that a large portion of their trade is making bodies for imported and domestic cars which are purchased without bodies by some customer who then engages them to design and build a special body to suit their particular taste or requirements. It is interesting to note, and it may be a surprise to some, that people cannot buy an automobile ready-made from the factory that is satisfactory to them in all respects any more than they can get a custom-made suit of clothes that is to their liking in fit, style, etc., so they buy the chassis and have the body of the car built to order.

”In the factory, they have a large portable blackboard, some 20 feet in length by 10 in height on which they draw the designs at full size so that the customer can see exactly how the finished body of his car is to look. In addition to building bodies, they make and repair all other parts of the car above the engine, making a special windshield and doing a fine class of leather and upholstering work, and making the tops for high-grade cars. All of their work is of the highest-class and their customers include the owners of the largest and most expensive cars in use. The firm handles the line of work both for private individuals and manufacturers.

”A considerable portion of their factory work is also supplied in making bodies for those cars whose owners desire a closed body for winter, and an open one for summer. If a machine has a limousine top they will build an open type for the summer, and vice versa.

”An interesting feature of their business is that of a large proportion of the bodies they build are of aluminum and their factory is equipped with the latest devices for metal working, including a power trip hammer, and other appliances.

"The firm employs 50 men and its factory includes a woodworking, painting, upholstering and blacksmithing department. The large factory building is heated by steam and equipped with electric power, with separate motors for all departments. The factory thus being heated makes a desirable place for automobile owners to leave their cars
during repairs or through the winter when they are having a new body built, and a walk through the building reveals about 75 cars in various stages of completion, some entirely new with bodies being made for their first use, and some limousines for which the firm is building open bodies for summer use. All cars for regular customers are stored free of charge. Special bodies for cars devoted to special uses such as hospital and sanitarium use are also built there. One that attracts particular notice of a visitor to the factory is a body specially constructed to admit sick persons who are obliged to ride on a cot and which is used for carrying invalids to and from trains, and, for other private purposes."

Business must have been good in the middle teens as in 1916 John T. Farnham helped found the Jamaica Plain Trust Co. and served on its board of directors for a number of years.

The firm catered to Boston’s elite and their advertising cards included wildlife photography created for them by naturalist Donald Ryder Dickey. In addition to their regular ads in Boston periodicals, Farnham & Nelson were regular advertisers in the Harvard Lampoon:

“We design and build bodies for any high-grade chassis.

“We invite you to discuss your wishes…

“In originality of design and beauty of line Farnham & Nelson built-to-suit motor bodies top the field.

“A Farnham & Nelson specially designed motor body, built under your won personal supervision, will put your car in a class by itself.

“Producers of the Unusual

Farnham & Nelson Company

47 Union Avenue Jamaica Plain, Mass.”

While the firm did not regularly exhibit at the annual Boston Automobile Show their coachwork was prominently featured at the concurrent Importers' Automobile Salon which was held at the Copley-Plaza Hotel in Copley Square, Boston.

In January 1917, a Farnham & Nelson-bodied Puritan was exhibited by its manufacturer at New York City’s Grand Central Palace. The assembled 4-cylinder touring was a product of the Puritan Motors Company of Framingham, Massachusetts. Priced at $2,775, the Puritan sported a ‘particularly comfortable and good-appearing four-passenger body made by the Farman-Nelson Company.’

During the mid-to-late teens Farnham & Nelson turned out some very interesting bodies, in particular a streamlined dual cowl phaeton of which a couple examples remain.

The firm’s Jun 9, 1919 Certificate of Condition (Mass. tax filing) states that their real estate was worth $85,056, machinery worth $10,249 and materials and merchandise worth $28,415 with $15,473 cash on hand. Authorized Capital Stock was listed at $75,000.

A Packard Twin Six Town car exhibited at the September 1922 Closed Car Show at New York City’s Grand Central Palace, had a body by Farnham & Nelson. The September 24, 1922 issue of the NY Times reported:

“The body of the special twin-six town car is by Farnham-Nelson. Technically known as limousine-brougham, it seats six passengers.”

Farnham & Nelson were one of the many body manufacturers to take advantage of the purpose-built Pierce-Arrow model Z bus chassis. Introduced in 1924, the Model Z was powered by the Series 33 passenger car dual-valve six and came with a choice of a 196-inch or 220-inch wheelbase.

Mounted on the Pierce-Arrow 220-inch wheelbase chassis Farnham & Nelson built a number of 25-passenger pay-as-you-enter coaches for the Interstate Limited Motor Coach Company, the operator of a Boston to Manchester, New Hampshire bus line. One unique feature of the coaches was its one-piece outward opening hinged windshield which included a glass shield that deflected incoming air from the driver while in the open position.

Sometime during 1924 the firm relocated 1 mile southwest to spacious new quarters located at 18-22 Arboretum Rd. in Roslindale, Massachusetts. The old facility in Jamaica Plain had insufficient space for manufacturing bus bodies which now made up the bulk of their sales.

In 1926 a number of trade publications announced that Farnham & Nelson were planning to establish their own Boston to New York bus service. Other sources list the Farnham-Nelson Coach Company as operators of interurban and jitney bus lines running between Newport, Rhode Island and Boston.

In 1927 Farnham-Nelson Coaches, Inc. was given a certificate by the State of Rhode Island to operate a jitney between Newport, Rhode Island, and Rhode Island-Massachusetts State Line at Tiverton, part of a through route between Newport, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts.

An unrelated firm, Farnum’s Stage Lines, Inc., (Arthur E. Farnum Jr. pres.) operated buses between Boston, Worcester, Newton, Springfield and Providence at the same time.

No coachbuilt Farnham & Nelson automobile bodies are known to exist dating after the move to Roslindale, although they continued to refinish cars for regional automobile dealers. During 1926 their customers included a Lincoln dealer located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:


4-pass. Lincoln Coupe—Brunn body, motor in excellent condition, painted by Farnham & Nelson of Boston. Guaranteed under Lincoln policies $2800

5-pass. Lincoln Sedan—Painted by Farnham & Nelson. Color, colbalt blue $1600

7-pass. Lincoln Touring—Painted by Amesbury Body Co. Color sage brush green. Motor as good as new $1500

Brooks Motor Sales, TELEPHONE 1530, Portsmouth, New Hampshire”

As did many custom body manufacturers of the early classic era, the Depression hit the Boston economy hard and the firm was out of business by 1932. As late as 1936 the firm’s solicitors were in US Federal Tax Appeals Court appealing an earlier federal tax judgment.

Some of the firm’s financial records dating from 1926-1932 can be found at the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Archives at the University of Connecticut Library. 

As most of Farnham & Nelson’s coachwork pre-dates the ‘Classic Era’ it’s difficult to get an accurate count of how many of the firm’s bodies survive. I was able to locate four Farnham & Nelson-bodied automobiles; two on Crane-Simplex Model 5 chassis and two (possibly just one or as many as three) on Locomobile Model 48 chassis.

The first Crane-Simplex, an original 1915  Model 5 with a 7-passenger touring body was recently purchased by vintage tire baron Corky Coker, who has it on display in the Coker Tire museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Amongst the surviving accessories was a complete set of side curtains as well as a very rare rear compartment windscreen, a once-popular item that is rarely seen today. The vehicle features a unique cowl line that bells out from the hood meeting the leading edge of the windscreen. The effect gives the car a very slimming appearance, especially when compared to other touring car body of the period. Also included were the firm’s characteristic armchair front buckets whose richly upholstered armrests continued into the top of the front doors. Most of the pictures to the left are of Coker's Crane-Simplex, taken before he purchased it.

The second Farnham & Nelson bodied Crane-Simplex, a 1916 Model 5 dual-cowl phaeton, was sold at Gooding & Co.’s Otis Chandler auction in Oxnard, California on Oct 21, 2006.

The car features exceptionally modern coachwork for the time, which would not look out of place on a car dating from the ‘Classic Era'. The mostly original, un-restored vehicle was owned by the legendary automobile collector D. Cameron Peck prior to its purchase by Chandler. Exhibited at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the car took third place in the Prewar Preservation class.

One of the surviving Locomobiles, a Model 48 dual cowl phaeton, is owned by Robert & Sheila Joynt of Batavia, Illinois. The restored car has a very distinctive Victoria top over the rear compartment, an item that was quite popular at the time, but is rarely seen today.

The two remaining Locomobiles I found evidence of may in fact be the Joynt’s dual cowl phaeton. The 1920 Locomobile Model 48 Farnham & Nelson Sportif recently approved by the Classic Car Club of America as a full classic may be the Joynt’s car, or it may be an different vehicle. The term Sportif was Locomobile’s term for their factory-built open touring cars, although the Joynt’s Locomobile does not look at all like the firm’s J. Franklin DeCausse-designed Sportif. I also found mention of a 1919 Locomobile Model 48 Farnham & Nelson DC Phaeton which may or may not be one of the aforementioned vehicles. 

© 2004 Mark Theobald -







Farnham and Nelson is Manufacturer of Auto Bodies - Jamaica Plain News, January 27, 1912 

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopeadia of the Automobile, Volume 1 

Beverly Rae Kimes - Packard: A History of the Motorcar and Company

Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark Jr. - Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942

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